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Sports Marketers Still Must Fight for R-E-S-P-E-C-T

It’s purely coincidental that this post is being written the day the new Aretha Franklin biopic hits theaters. The theme of respect for what sports marketing professionals do is unfortunately not a new one making its debut in an office near you.


Over my nearly 34 years in the industry, despite exponential advancements in the professionalism of our craft in nearly every area—objective-setting, valuation, sales, measurement, asset management, etc.—far too many hard-working colleagues—especially on the brand side of our business—still struggle unnecessarily to shed the tag of simply being “the people with the tickets” or “the ones who get to have all the fun.”


Not only is this entirely unfair on a personal and professional level, but it also results in the sponsorship and sports marketing functions (and the people working in those positions and departments) remaining siloed at too many corporations.


Far too often, simply because they have “sports,” “events,” or “sponsorship” in their title, great marketers are left off career advancement tracks that welcome their peers in other marketing roles. Not surprisingly, at those same companies, partnerships and sponsorships never gain a place in the strategic planning process alongside other elements of the marketing mix. Instead they remain isolated and often an afterthought.


The issue of second-class status for sports marketing and sponsorship roles arose again for me this week in the situations of two colleagues that reflected the one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of any gains we make in advancing the perception of these important positions.


On the positive front, an extremely talented young friend had applied for a sponsorship management position with a large corporation that is well-known and highly respected for its sponsorship program and team. Knowing his worth, the applicant stuck fast to certain must-haves he deemed necessary if he were to leave his current position.


Although initial meetings with hiring managers and HR seemed to stall over concerns about his requirements, he was soon contacted by both the head of sponsorship and a C-level executive who at last report were advancing the conversation in a positive direction.


Beyond indicating interest in a particular candidate, this story signals the importance to the entire corporation of the position itself, and of its sponsorship program.


But parallel to that tale, I heard a more cautionary, albeit familiar, one. In hopes that I could refer someone in my network to fill a vacant head of sponsorship position at another well-regarded sponsor with a significant portfolio of high-profile deals, I learned that although the company does intend to do so, it does not have a job description, a timeline or a plan for seeking internal or external candidates.


This is far from the first time I have seen this scenario unfold. Sponsorship managers and decision-makers in many companies, while not being one-person bands, often don’t have strong seconds-in-command or an org structure that clearly identifies who could step in if and when the top spot is vacated.


My educated guess is that this is not the case with peer roles throughout those same companies, but for some reason the enterprise is comfortable with saying, “We’ll figure it out,” when it comes to partnership marketing.


If the impact were strictly internal, these situations would be bad enough. But until things get figured out, partners, agencies, suppliers and others are left in limbo, executing and delivering on contracts with fingers crossed that someone in the executive suite doesn’t decide to go in another direction before marketing and HR can come together on how to define and recruit for a role that was responsible for likely millions of dollars in brand value and actual sales.


I can’t explain why so many institutions that are practitioners of sports marketing treat their own programs with such casual disregard. Or why individuals outside of the field hold what we do in such low esteem and insist on clinging to old-fashioned views of sponsorship as a mere branding exercise and not the strategic marketing tool it has become.


But experiences such as the job applicant’s above give me confidence that brands that give sponsorship its due—including providing the marketers they employ meaningful compensation, a seat at the table and opportunities for advancement—will soon vastly outnumber those who don’t.

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